This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
The God of the living
Read Mark 12:18-27
From what we can gather the belief that God would bodily resurrect his people from Sheol, the shadowy existence that awaits all at death, came to expression within the Jewish faith at a relatively late stage. We can see signs of it taking shape in the Psalms with believers struggling to make sense of suffering and death in the light of God’s love for and unconditional commitment to them (e.g. Psalms 30 & 88). Further, with the increasing influence of Greek culture and ideas upon the Jewish way, belief in the immortality of the soul was absorbed into speculation about the afterlife during the intertestamental period (e.g. Book of Wisdom & 4 Maccabees). However, it was the need for justice and vindication for those Jews who had been persecuted and killed as they refused to compromise their faith that finally gave birth to the conviction that God would raise them up to eternal life and punish their enemies (Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:1-3; Psalms of Solomon 13-15; 2 Maccabees 7).
But as this passage from Mark makes clear, not all Jews subscribed to this belief. The evangelist confirms what the Jewish historian Josephus also reports, namely, that, unlike their pharisaic counterparts, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Constituting the religious aristocracy of the day, their conservative outlook made them suspicious of new developments; and even under Roman rule, they enjoyed a standard of living which gave them little cause to despair of this life!
Their question to Jesus concerning the resurrection (vv. 19-23) assumes the principle of Levirate marriage specified in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, whereby a Jewish man is guaranteed an heir by requiring his brothers to marry his wife should he die without a son. Although the Sadducees cite Moses as their authority (i.e. the five books of Moses, including Deuteronomy), Jesus criticises them for knowing neither the Scriptures nor the God to whom they bear witness (v. 24). We should note that Jesus’ answer is primarily a rebuttal of what he considered to be a largely irrelevant issue and cannot be interpreted as his definitive statement on post-mortem existence. However, in addition to reflecting the current view about sharing an angelic existence, it suggests that the resurrected life will neither be regulated by the Mosaic Law nor restricted to conventional family relationships. The logic of Jesus’ answer in verse 26 is far from obvious to us now. Like his inquisitors, he appeals to Moses’ authority, but concludes that, as God is described by him as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf. Exodus 3:6), these patriarchs must still be alive. At best, this is evidence for continued existence in some form, but not for resurrection in particular.
The greatest commandment of all
Read Mark 12:28-34
The questioning of Jesus continues with a scribe or teacher of the Law asking him which he considered to be the greatest of all the commandments. Although the versions in Matthew and Luke (22:35/10:25) suggest an ulterior motive, Mark’s scenario seems plausible. Jewish tradition identified 613 commandments within the Torah (i.e. 1st five books of the Bible), highlighting the need to both summarise and prioritise.
Jesus, being a faithful Jew, draws his answer from the Torah, citing Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. In many respects, the former, known as the Shema, is the foundation for every Jew’s response to God. It was recited twice each day, worn upon a Jew’s forehead in a phylactery and inscribed upon the door posts of his home (cf. Deuteronomy 6:8-9). From what we can gather, both the Shema and Leviticus 19:18 were used in such debates at Jesus’ time, although their juxtaposition may reflect a development. However, the injunction to love both God and neighbour is found in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (‘Love the Lord and your neighbour’, Issachar 5:2; ‘Throughout all your life love the Lord, and one another with a true heart’, Dan 5:3); but although this work was composed in the second century before Christ, it shows signs of later Christian interpolation. The more radical and innovative teaching attributed to Jesus concerning the love of enemies is not recorded by Mark (cf. Matthew 5:43-48 & Luke 6:27-36); but even this can be seen as a natural expression of Jewish ethical principles (cf. Sirach 18:8-14).
One of the most striking things about Jesus’ teaching here is that we are commanded to love. That is to say, love is rooted in volition rather than affection; whilst feelings of love can neither be manufactured nor demanded, a wilful commitment to loving someone is within the gift of those who are open to God’s unconditional and unmerited love for all people. Further, by linking love of God with love of people, Jesus underlines the Jewish conviction that worship and service, faith and life, are intimately connected and cannot be separated.
Both Jesus and his scribal counterpart appear to agree on the most important commandments and of their pre-eminence to the sacrificial system, which needn’t reflect any moral commitment on the part of priest or people (vv. 32-33; cf. Hosea 6:6). However, they may understand these injunctions in significantly different ways: the love of God and neighbour may be the basis for all the other essential commandments or they may represent a distillation of the rest and thus a replacement. Jesus’ words, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (v. 34), suggests a genuine openness to God and willingness to serve him through serving others.
Jesus disturbs the status quo
Read Mark 12:35-44
This section contains three quite separate traditions: Jesus’ question about the Messiah’s Davidic descent (vv. 37-37), his denouncement of the scribes (vv. 38-40), and his praise of the widow’s generosity (vv. 41-44). The first of these is the most difficult to fathom. As we noted when discussing Mark 10:35-45, the expectation that the Messiah would be of Davidic lineage was current in Jesus’ time. Further, in Mark 10:47-48, Jesus seems comfortable with Bartimaeus’ appellation, ‘Son of David’. And yet here he challenges the link between Messiah and lineage, much to the delight of his audience.
The argument revolves around Psalm 110.1 which may well have been a seedbed for messianic speculation in first century Palestine and certainly became a Christian proof text for Jesus’ exaltation (e.g. Acts 2:34-35). We need to remember that David would have been considered the author of this psalm and, writing under divine inspiration (‘by the Holy Spirit’), refers to the Messiah as, ‘my Lord’. As sonship assumes subordination and lordship implies superiority, it would be impossible for David to refer to the Messiah as his Lord whilst knowing him to be his son. Hence the conundrum.
Whether Jesus wished to undermine the association between king David and the Messiah, and how he saw this argument reflecting on his own self-understanding and perception by others is difficult to assess. It is possible that his purpose is more subtle, distinguishing between natural descent and divine vocation to demonstrate that God is free to use whoever he wishes irrespective of background (cf. Romans 1:3-4).
Interestingly, Jesus continues to challenge stereotypes in his castigation of the scribes (vv. 38-40). We know from verses 28-34 that he didn’t consider them all corrupt and perhaps his point is a more general one about the dangers of external religiosity masking sinister conduct and morally bankrupt motivations (cf. 11:12-26). Their practice of exploiting widows is clearly deplorable and may refer to unscrupulous estate management by the religious authorities.
A widow is also the subject of the final tradition in this section (vv. 41-44), which continues the theme of the previous one, namely, that appearances can be deceptive and need not reveal a person’s true self. In this case, the issue is giving to God or, at least, to the religious structure claiming divine authority (i.e. the Temple). As usual, Jesus’ insight is both penetrating and disturbing: generosity is not a measure of the contribution, but a condition of the heart.
End-time predictions – Part I
Read Mark 13:1-13
Chapter thirteen is a remarkable piece of writing, time tabling the final countdown before God intervenes decisively through his heavenly Messiah, the Son of Man, to save the faithful from a corrupt humanity’s collision course with disaster. We find examples of this kind of apocalyptic speculation in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Daniel) and it was widespread in the first century. Many influences can be identified within this genre, including, concern over God’s non-activity in the world and his failure to fulfil covenantal promises, a desire to imbue the present with meaning, and a longing to know the mind of God not only in the past and present but also in the future.
Apocalyptic invites hearers to discover their own situation within its imagery and allusions, and so to redeem life by locating it within sacred time – the outworkings of salvation history. Of the various end-time overtures rehearsed in chapter 13, references to the destruction of the Temple (v. 2) and its desecration (v. 14) are identifiable events, although it is unclear whether Mark writes before or after their fulfilment (cf. the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by fire). This issue is one of the determining factors for dating the Gospel.
Did Jesus compose this apocalyptic monologue either in its entirety or in part? There is little reason to doubt that some of the material originates with him, including quite possibly, the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (a view shared by other Jews), the warning over immanent persecution and apostasy, together with the belief that God would intervene through his heavenly agent. However, not only is the extended discourse style uncharacteristic of Jesus (if the first three Gospels are any guide), but also the world view underpinning it goes against the grain of Jesus’ largely positive and life-affirming attitude towards this world as a place for divine encounter and experiencing God’s blessings. To this end, the current form of the discourse suggests editorial reworking and may contain considerable supplementary material of either Jewish or Christian provenance.
Mark may already have alluded to Jesus’ conviction concerning the destruction of the Temple in 11:23, where ‘this mountain’ refers to the Temple Mount. The significance of this event is usually understood in terms of judgement upon Israel or, at least, upon its corrupt religious hierarchy; however, the import for Jesus may have been more one of demonstrating the redundancy of the temple sacrificial system for moderating access to God. And yet before the decisive events of the end-time take place, disciples must prepare themselves for the ‘birth pangs’, including, religious charlatans masquerading as Jesus (v. 6), political unrest (v. 7), and natural disasters (v. 8). Evidently, Jesus did not foresee the cataclysmic consummation of all things in his own lifetime; and after 2000 years of Christian history which generation has been free of such incidents!
End-time predictions – Part II
Read Mark 13:14-37
One of the striking characteristics of apocalyptic timetables is the way in which future events are thought to be predetermined. The die has been cast, either by God from the beginnings of time or by the effects of sinful generations now beyond redemption. According to Jesus, the placement of the ‘desolating sacrilege’ (v. 14), a phrase taken from Daniel 12:11 where it refers to the altar to Zeus constructed in the Jerusalem Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in BC 168, is an example of this phenomenon. Whether Jesus had the Temple’s destruction in mind or some other act of desecration is unclear.
God’s intervention is prompted by the need to save the elect or a surviving remnant (v. 20). Evidently, without divine assistance no one, not even the upright and faithful, would be left alive. One way in which apocalyptic writing highlights both the disordering effects of human sinfulness and the corresponding displeasure of God is by depicting the disruption of the natural order (vv. 24-25; cf. Isaiah 13:10; 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10; 3:15; Amos 8:9). These happenings provide the backdrop for the coming of the heavenly Son of Man (vv. 26-27). The book of Daniel (7:13-14) once again supplies the imagery for God’s deliverer, a cosmic Messiah empowered to implement the divine will, with or without human co-operation. The gathering together of the remnant of faithful Israel also expresses a hope found in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Isaiah 11:11; 43:5-6).
Do these verses reflect Jesus’ understanding? One school of thought is that Jesus did expect God to intervene in human history and believed his death would act as a trigger for this intervention. Certainly, his mode of entry into Jerusalem, coupled with his conduct in the Temple at a time when Jewish nationalistic and messianic fervour will have been high, suggests a desire to orchestrate a confrontation and so to pre-empt a crisis. As we shall see, Jesus succeeded on this count.
The parables contained in verses 28-31 and 32-37 pick up the flavour of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse even if they weren’t originally a part of it. The pattern of nature as exemplified by a fig-tree demonstrates the inevitability of God’s judgement and consummation of all things, whilst the parable of the house-owner reinforces one of the principle functions of apocalyptic, namely, to encourage faithfulness, obedience and conscientiousness.
The ambiguity of intimacy
Read Mark 14:1-11
From this point the order of events narrated by Mark possesses a coherence that reflects both regular retelling and a correspondence with what actually happened. In these verses, we find the plot to kill Jesus (vv. 1-2 & 10-11) enveloping his anointing at Bethany (vv. 3-9). Mark has already informed us of the religious leaders’ intention to silence Jesus (e.g. 3:6; 11:18; 12:12), presumably because he undermined their own authority, threatened to de-stabilise the fragile peace and, perhaps, was genuinely thought to be a false prophet.
Judas’ willingness to hand Jesus over may well have persuaded his opponents to throw caution to the wind (cf. v. 2) and to act during the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread (originally two separate feasts, but amalgamated later; cf. 2 Chronicles 35:17). Christian tradition has cast Judas in the mould of the malevolent, avaricious disciple who betrays his Lord with a kiss. Yet the word translated ‘betray’ (v. 10) need carry no prerogative overtones and may simply mean ‘hand over’. His motivations for leading the religious authorities to Jesus when in a secluded place are now out of reach. But this seems to be the extent of the crime; the rest is interpretation. And in the light of this, one wonders whether Judas has been made into something of a scapegoat, bearing the guilt of all those who betray Jesus, as he is cast out from the community of faith and destroyed as a form of recompense or atonement (cf. Matthew 27:3-10).
The anointing of Jesus is one of the most powerful and enigmatic stories recorded in the Gospels. The woman’s actions can readily be accommodated within the social protocols of the day; however, the opulence of her gesture in using costly ointments was extraordinary and for this reason received a mixed response. For some, no doubt indignant at such waste, it was excessive, financially irresponsible and contrary to Jesus’ priorities and commitments. And yet in spite of this, Jesus defends her. We can only assume that, whereas on-lookers reacted to what she did, Jesus discerned her motivations and judged them to be worthy. Perhaps, as with the woman in Luke 7:36-50, he recognised an expression of love and devotion that was truly inspirational and exemplary. Certainly, this anonymous follower is promised the highest acclaim (v. 9).
However, there may be more to this story than appears. For one thing, the anointing anticipates Jesus’ death and becomes the preparation of his corpse that the empty tomb prevents (cf. 16:1). For another, anointing with oil was a means of investing power or communicating status and blessing. Israelite kings were anointed (e.g. 1 Kings 1:39; Psalm 89:20) and God’s future saviour would be similarly endowed (‘Messiah’ literally means ‘anointed’). Whether these associations were in the minds of Jesus and the woman we shall never know, but they clearly resonate with Mark’s convictions. For the woman’s faith not only perceives the way of Jesus to be the way of the cross, but also confirms that Jesus’ true identity only becomes manifest through his passion.
Pause for thought
Finding God at the extremes of human experience is the theme running through this week’s readings. A faith that trusts God not only for this life, but also for the next. A commitment to love both the God whom we cannot see and our neighbours whose presence is only too obvious. The challenge to stick with Jesus when he courts controversy, disturbs the status quo of religious complacency, and requires his followers to embrace the crisis associated with the realisation of God’s sovereign reign on earth.
Living in the ‘present’ when it is invested with so much significance and full of so many demands has the effect of polarising human response: some are drawn into the vision of an eternal now, of the dawning of salvation, whilst others are incapable or unwilling to embrace this invitation to authentic life. And as we have seen, Jesus precipitates such polarisation because his life communicates a quality of human being and an investment in God that is at the same time inspirational and threatening. In one sense, his faith is too strong for he refuses to compromise or seek a less confrontational approach. Faith must be tested in the crucible of human experience and so, by implication, must the God who is believed in.
That such intensity of faith and human being should meet with outright opposition is only to be expected – for it is easier to destroy what threatens us than to allow it to ‘destroy’ or transform us. But what is remarkable is the radical freedom that some found in Jesus’ presence. And here the irresponsible generosity of the anonymous woman who anoints Jesus is pre-eminent. For this gesture speaks of one who is truly being herself and expressing a quality of love that is constrained neither by the desire for self-preservation nor concern for popular opinion. And in case we are tempted to think this demonstration of devotion rather self-indulgent and inappropriate, it is worth remembering that in the Gospel story it precedes and prepares Jesus for an even more extravagant and public manifestation.
Few of us find it easy to be true to our authentic selves and to live wholeheartedly and unreservedly in the present. But this is the inheritance of faith that Jesus bequeaths to those who choose to follow him in the way of the cross.
This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part VIII